My father was a hobby beekeeper for many years and - this is utterly true - my mother is deathly allergic to bees. Cue lots of hilarity about him trying to kill her etc, but his hives were a long way from home.
What I used to tease him about (apart from the obvious Freudian interpretation of his repressed feelings for my mother) was his subscription to ‘Australasian Beekeeper’ which was posted out every couple of months. Back in the 1980s when I was a scornful teenager, this magnificent publication featured a black-and-white photo on the cover featuring some lucky apiarist's jars of honey.
“Whoo hoo Dad, it’s here!” I’d mock, but the day that his jars made it on the front cover was different. The publication was held a bit more reverently as it was handed over, and his little brown eyes misted up with pride. "Oh yeah well it's nothing really," he muttered but I noticed that it lived on top of his beloved Aussie Geographic and BirdWatcher magazines on the home-made chess-set coffee table for nearly a year afterwards.
Jars of fame notwithstanding, the bonus of having fresh honeycomb to chew on and delicious strains of honey available at any time - red gum, blue gum, Salvation Jane, orange blossom is a fond memory. Even now, I feel a little bit guilty at having to buy jars of honey from the shops - years of having it on tap via the huge warm tank in the shed are hard to erase.
Death issues aside, Mum handled it all with a surprising amount of calm - as long as the hives were on faraway farms and all spare boxes were stored on the side of the shed furthest from the house, she wasn't bothered. Sure, she needed to cart around some tiny pink pills to pop within five minutes of being bitten and then get to a hospital or face death by asphixiation within half an hour but it sure was a lovely treat to have some honey and cream on some fresh bread for dessert after tea.
In reality, it wasn't Mum's deathly allergy that loomed over the family, it was Dad's physical condition when he returned home from shifting boxes or extracting honey in his tiny caravan. Even when he wore the necessary head nets and wielded a defensive smoke bellows, he'd invariably have a few annoyed little beasties angry at having their food supply plundered who'd find their way under the brim of his hat and use his face as a form of punctured stress relief.
As such, we weren't unused to having a bloke who resembled an antipodean Elephant Man trying to snuffle down some chicken and coleslaw salad through comically swollen lips on a summer's Saturday night.
I did feel sorry for my first boyfriend Sean however. Not only was he going out with a high school teacher's daughter - and one who tried to teach him chemistry and coached him in the cricket team - but he was now invited to have dinner with the teacher's family. As The Boyfriend. He did a sterling job of politely chatting with my Mum, enduring the curious stare of my younger brother and over-protective glare of the older one and sat down nervously awaiting the meal when Dad walked in.
"The bees were pretty angry today," he smiled.
Or at least, we think he was smiling. With two burst pork sausages in place where his lips used to be, one eye fully closed and the other resembling a hot-pink-coloured hard boiled egg, it was difficult to know what emotion he was currently feeling. The dangling threads of drool didn't help either.
Sean visibly reeled back in his chair before regaining control of his reflexes and reverting back to the Polite-And-Trustworthy-Boyfriend position, forcing his stressed blue eyes to stare back into the face of the Alpha Male opposite him.
"Er, what happened to you...." he choked a bit, "Mr Read?"
"Well Sean," and here I could tell that Dad was just loving being able to scare the month's fibre content out of his daughter's main squeeze because his lips turned upwards in a grotesque imitation of a smile that instead looked more like two rutting sea lions. "A couple of them buzzed up through my shirt and had a few goes at my face. Don't worry, it looks worse than it feels," he patted Sean's arm and sat down in front of his plate.
Reassurance by the injured is always comforting to hear but it did nothing to ease the disgusting visual challenge of having to see my father attempt to eat fried lamb chops, peas and carrots with a face like a obese party balloon. The sound effects only made it worse - the snuffle-snort, snuffle-snort, cough, whoops sorry, where did that pea fly off to - accompaniments made Sean's brave attempts at eating and remaining unfazed truly heroic. The slurped-up bowl of icecream and chocolate topping that followed is still too obscene - nearly 25 years later - to describe without my hands getting too shaky to type.
"Ssssho Sshean", Dad lisped, a half-digested circle of carrot resting, unfelt, on his lower lip before dropping onto his chop, "Where are you taking Kath tonight - the moviesh?"
Sean's head drooped as his shoulders started to shake. "Ssshean?"
He wiped away some tears of mirth before he answered, "Yeah. We're going to see 'Creepshow'."
Perhaps it's no small feat that he willingly survived me and my family for three years.